BETH: Hi Anna. My name's Beth. I'm a mail carrier. I work in rural Maine.
This is Death, Sex & Money. And four months ago, this listener, Beth, was among the essential workers who got in touch to tell us what it was like reporting to work when most of the rest of the country was shutting down.
BETH: I don't know if this virus is on the mail. The packages, the mailboxes. I touch everything, and I wonder if I am carrying this virus in my truck. I wonder if I'm leaving it at somebody's house for somebody else to get. It's scary.
[SOUND OF FACETIME]
ANNA SALE: Hi Beth.
AS: Hey, it's Anna Sale.
BETH: How are you?
Beth lives with her 8-year-old daughter and boyfriend in Maine. Her boyfriend works in IT and has had to keep going into work too. Since Beth wrote to us in March, her state has kept COVID cases fairly low. It has one of the lowest infection rates in the country.
BETH: I definitely don't feel as scared. Um, you know, with more information that's coming out about COVID-19, um, and we've since gotten gloves at work and now we have masks and now we have hand sanitizer.
The postal service has been in the news lately — not because of health and safety there, but because of the way it’s being managed. There was national outrage this week about budget cuts and slowdowns at the post office potentially undermining mail-in voting this fall.
Those cuts were walked back yesterday, but the postal service is still grappling with long term financial losses.
Some of that is due to the pandemic. First class and marketing mail are way down. But the number of packages being sent in the mail is way up... up to 80% higher at some points during this pandemic. That’s what Beth is noticing at work.
BETH: A lot of pandemic purchases, like bicycles and trampolines and cornhole and inflatable pools.
AS: [Laughs] Well, that's good. People are finding some, some joy in their yards. That's good.
AS: And, um, before coronavirus started, what was a normal day like for you?
BETH: Um, well, I would go in at 7 am, and I start out by sorting my mail and I load up my truck and off I go. Um, normally on an average day, I'd have anywhere between 80 and a hundred packages to deliver. Um, but since COVID, I have anywhere from 150 to 250 packages a day. I've added quite a lot of time to my route.
AS: So it's a longer route now because there's just more quantity. People are getting more in the mail.
BETH: Yeah. You know, if everybody orders one extra thing, it's one extra thing for me to deliver. One extra thing for me to get out of my vehicle for. It just adds extra minutes every day.
AS: Do you make more money if you're working longer hours?
BETH: You know, what's funny is I don't, um, my route — what's - what's great about rural carriers is we work on evaluated systems. So like I get paid for 43 hours, no matter what. So if I do my route in 38 hours, I get paid for 43, which is great. Because I can get out of work early and come home and I can do what I need to do and clean my house, and go pick up my daughter. But if I work 55 hours, I'm only getting paid for 43.
AS: Have there been days where your route has taken so much longer than normal, that you're afraid you're gonna miss pickup?
BETH: Uh, yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And, um, I don't speed while I'm driving, but I definitely, I spend less time at a mailbox and I definitely run from my truck to a house to drop off a package and I run back to my truck and it's, it's go, go, go, go, go all day long. And sometimes I don't have time to take a lunch break or go to the bathroom. It's probably not the best thing, but yeah.
AS: You know, one thing that I was thinking about talking to you is like, to me, I'm very aware of the postal service in a way that I haven't been in a long time. You know, I've, I've been, you know, sort of broadly aware of the challenges that the post office has been facing for decades now. Um, but with the focus on, you know, whether we're going to vote by mail and also with, you know, so much more volume happening in the mail because we aren't leaving our houses as much, has it given you, like, thinking about like the role you play in society as someone who delivers mail, like, do you, do you feel a different sense of purpose now than you did before?
BETH: I definitely do. I'm definitely delivering a lot more, um, goods for people that I didn't deliver before. Um, like pantry items and medications and, um, stimulus checks. [Laughs]
AS: That's cool! Like what a fun thing to get to like see. You're like, "Yes! I'm giving this person something they're going to need." That's cool.
BETH: Yeah. They definitely rely on me and people will come out and say, you know, "You're really late today! What's happening. Are you okay? Did you break down?"
AS: Do you feel like in some ways, has, has going through this with the people on your mail route, do you feel closer to them? Do you feel like it's deepened your relationships with any of them?
BETH: I think so. I did tell one couple, 'cause they were petrified to come out of their house. I told them if they needed groceries or anything to let me know, I'd be happy to go get them for them. Just give me a list and I'll swing by when I get out of work, so.
AS: Was it an older couple?
BETH: It was, yeah.
AS: Oh, that's nice. And when I picture you on your route, is it, are you in like a mail truck with like the USPS logo on the side?
BETH: Yeah. I call it my tin can on wheels. It's very, very hot. Those little mail trucks, the older ones. There's no air conditioning in those whatsoever. I put a little thermometer in there the other day and it was 108 degrees.
AS: Oh Beth.
BETH: Yeah. And it was only 88 outside, I think it said. Yeah.
AS: Do you have like a little fan or anything?
BETH: There's a little fan mounted on the dash, but it just blows, like, engine heat at you all day. It's very hot.
AS: Which doesn't help.
BETH: No. So when I go pick up my daughter, I'm just a big sweaty mess and I feel, I feel gross and I'm like, ugh, sorry guys!
AS: And tell me how - so you've had - you have an eight year old who's been out of school since the spring. She's in daycare now. Um, how has childcare worked for you over the last several months?
BETH: Oh, well, my mom was watching my daughter for a little while. Um, and she told me she was really stressed out. And I knew it, but I'm - I was also stressed out too. You know, working and doing homeschooling and it was, it was tough. And then one day my mom just said, I can't do this. I said, okay. And I took leave for pretty much the entire month of May until daycare opened. So when they opened, it was like a thank, thank the Lord moment. 'Cause it saved me a lot of stress being able to go back to work.
AS: Man. Did you get paid during that month?
BETH: Um, no, I didn't. Um, I took leave without pay.
AS: Was that something you were in a position to handle financially?
BETH: Um, financially, it was fine, but I'm just, I'm not, I'm not a mother who is, has the patience and ability to be able to stay at home. I - I'm a busy body. I like to be able to go out into the world and work and feel like I'm productive. I'm just, I'm not a stay-at-home mom.
AS: Yeah. I find what you're saying refreshingly honest, like as a mom myself, I find like part of the challenge of these last months has been like how much of my identity is not being at home? Even though I love my children so much. You know?
BETH: Oh yeah. Oh, I'd do anything for her, I would, but staying at home is not in my bones. It's just not.
AS: When you had to tell your supervisor at the post office that you needed to take time off, um, and I guess when you took the leave, you didn't know how long it would last, right?
AS: Was that a hard conversation for you?
BETH: It was hard for me, um, but it wasn't hard for her. She's also a mother, so she was very understanding. When I told her, you know, my mom can't watch my child anymore. She said, okay, what do you need? And I told her, and I cried. And she was like, no worries. It's taken care of.
AS: Hmm. You know, when your mother was, was providing childcare. Something that made me think about is like, it's such a gift sometimes to have family members who can step in and help, um, when you need help with childcare. Um, but it also is complicated because when you're not paying them, um, when they decide they don't want to do it anymore, you don't have any - like, it's hard to negotiate, you know?
BETH: Mmhm. Yes. And I, I felt so guilty asking my mom to help, but she said, you know, your father and I will do whatever we can to help you. Um, and then when, when she pulled back, it was like — but you said you would help me!
BETH: It's been really tense.
BETH: Yeah. And my mom and I are, you know, we're pretty close, and we never argue. We never have, really. Um, even when I was a teenager, we, we got along, you know? And so to have this big blow up, it's, it's hard.
AS: Mm. In your community, do you know yet whether your daughter's going back to school?
BETH: Um, we're not sure yet. I got a phone call from her school maybe last week and they just wanted to hear from parents, whether or not they were comfortable sending their child to school. They kind of wanted to get a head count, if and when school opens, how many were comfortable doing, like, um, half virtual learning, half in session, or not at all.
AS: What did you find yourself saying when they were asking you those questions?
BETH: Um, well I find, because my daughter has been going to daycare since June 1st when they opened, she's - she's been exposed because of what I do for work. And because she is going to daycare she's with kids all day, kids of people who are essential workers. She's been in the thick of it, just like I have, basically. I feel comfortable that she can go to school. Distance learning for us was just an absolute failure, to be honest. It was a struggle.
AS: And if you, when you think about the prospect of what it would be like if your daughter couldn't go to school, if it was all remote learning, um, what would your life be like? What would it look like in your family?
BETH: I can't work from home because I deliver mail. So I honestly would have to stop working in order to help her with school. And I, I don't know that I could do that.
AS: What have you learned about yourself this summer, going through all this, that you didn't know before?
BETH: Oh gosh, that's a good question. Um, I've learned, I probably have a lot more patience than I thought I had. [Laughs] Um, there's a lot of things that are not in my control. Um, and it's very much a wait and see time, and we all kind of have to wait and see what's going to happen. So I have to have a lot of patience with that.
AS: And that's new.
BETH: That's new. Yeah. I've always said that, you know, I'm the most impatient person in the world. And with this, I've really had to sit down and kind of breathe and just be patient and wait.
That’s Beth, a postal worker in rural Maine. Beth has since found out that her daughter’s school will be open in the fall. ”She is so excited and I am too,” Beth wrote to us in an email.
If you want to go back to hear the original episode where we met Beth, along with other essential workers, there’s a link in our show notes. And we’re working on a new episode with more of your stories about child care — whether you’re a parent or child care worker, we want to hear what caregiving is like for you right now. Send your stories to email@example.com.
I’m Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.